The most unforgettable speaker ever to come to Philadelphia’s William Penn Charter School during my high school student years was a man named David Richie. Penn Charter is a Quaker school, and Richie was a Quaker activist who organized groups of volunteers to work on housing conditions in parts of inner city Philadelphia. He ran weeklong and weekend workcamps under the auspices of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. The day he spoke he told inspiring stories about students at the camps who worked alongside tenants to rehabilitate their decaying homes. He struck me as a humble yet strong man who embodied a cardinal Quaker principle—service to others in need.
World War II was raging during those years. Why was David not in the army? Possibly he failed the physical or was too old for the draft. More likely, however, he was true to his Quaker convictions against war and had become a conscientious objector. He must have realized that his war on poverty housing could barely make a dent in the widespread substandard conditions. Nevertheless, he invited students at Penn Charter (and probably every other high school where he could get an invitation) to come and work with him. “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” was a motto for his life’s work.
David’s message gripped me. At 16 years of age, during my senior year (1945-46), I volunteered for a weekend workcamp. I know this greatly dismayed my parents, who were fearful for my safety, but remarkably they didn’t try to stand in my way.
On the appointed day, a Friday, I packed a small bag and traveled by trolley car, arriving around 5:30 pm at an old church that was to be our home for the weekend. It was in a neighborhood of run-down row houses in North Philadelphia. Fifteen or so students from various high schools made up the other volunteers. I knew none of them. David’s was the only familiar face there.
We settled into the church basement, had some dinner and, under David’s leadership, played several games to break the ice and get acquainted. Then David gave a more serious explanation of Saturday’s work schedule. We would be working in small crews of two or three. In the morning, we would walk to our pre-assigned work locations carrying our supplies (tools, plaster, paint, paintbrushes, etc.) with us. We were to work only if someone living in the apartment worked with us. After some spirited discussions about Quaker values, especially pacifism, we set up our cots for the night and were off to bed by 10:00 or 10:30 pm.
On Saturday morning, the girl with whom I was assigned to work and I set off with a mixture of excited anticipation and nervous butterflies in our stomachs. We carried our supplies to an address a few blocks away. The family living in the second floor apartment of the two-story row house greeted us. They were friendly and joined us in the task of scraping, plastering, and re-painting one room of their apartment. It was a job small enough to be accomplished in a single day. Our apprehensions quickly faded and the day passed uneventfully. We received warm thanks at the end of the afternoon.
We were all tired as we gathered again in the church basement for dinner, followed by a few more games and then a time for each crew to report on the day’s experiences.
Our physical work was complete, but the workcamp was far from over. The next day we were awakened at the crack of dawn for two Sunday events that David had arranged for us. We were taken to an early morning police court. There we sat and observed what happens to those arrested in the precinct and held in jail over a Saturday night for alleged fights, drunkenness, robbery, or even homicide. A magistrate listened to the police reports, heard the defendants’ pleas, and then determined whether the evidence warranted holding a defendant in jail pending trial or releasing them on bail. It was an eye-opening experience for all of us.
We returned to our home base church for breakfast and an opportunity to discuss the cases we had seen in the police court.
The final event of the weekend was a church service unlike any I had been exposed to before: Sunday worship at a large Baptist church. It was packed full and we were the only white faces in the entire congregation. My initial feelings of unease quickly passed. The service was marked by exuberant singing, loud amens, and shouts of encouragement during the preaching. It lasted about half again as long as the services to which I was accustomed at the all-white Oak Lane Presbyterian Church only a few miles away. All of this was new to me and probably most of the other weekend workcampers. I felt happy and fortunate to have been there.
Returning home, I knew I wanted more experiences like this. The workcamp had taken me beyond my comfort zone, and I had felt the value of serving. That weekend and subsequent workcamp experiences set a tone that was to influence the rest of my life—in my career in medicine, which included visits to several African countries to work and teach, and in a variety of volunteer endeavors during retirement, such as Habitat for Humanity and Bikes for the World.